Obama Gathering a Flock of Hawks to Oversee U.S. Foreign Policy

In disc golf, there’s a shot known as “an Obama” — it’s a drive that you expect to veer to the left but keeps hooking right.

In no other area has this metaphor been truer than Barack Obama’s foreign policy and national security appointments. For a man who was elected in part on the promise to not just end the war in Iraq but to “end the mindset that got us into war in the first place,” it’s profoundly disappointing that a majority of his key appointments — Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Dennis Blair, Janet Napolitano, Richard Holbrooke and Jim Jones, among others — have been among those who represent that very mindset.

As president, Obama is ultimately the one in charge, so judgment should not be based upon his appointments alone. Indeed, some of his early decisions regarding foreign policy and national security – such as ordering the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, initiating the necessary steps for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, and ending the “global gag rule” on funding for international family-planning programs – have been quite positive.

But it’s still significant that the majority of people appointed to key foreign policy positions, like those in comparable positions in the Bush administration, appear to be more committed to U.S. hegemony than the right of self-determination, human rights and international law.

Supporters of Wars of Conquest

Though far from the only issue of concern, it is the fact that the majority of Obama’s appointees to these key positions were supporters of the invasion of Iraq that is perhaps the most alarming.

Obama’s defenders claim that what is most important in these appointments is not their positions on a particular issue, but their overall competence. Unfortunately, this argument ignores the reality that anybody who actually believed that invading Iraq was a good idea amply demonstrated that they’re unqualified to hold any post dealing with foreign and military policy.

It was not simply a matter of misjudgment. Those who supported the war demonstrated a dismissive attitude toward fundamental principles of international law, and disdain for the United Nations Charter and international treaties which prohibit aggressive war. They demonstrated a willingness to either fabricate a non-existent threat or naively believe transparently false and manipulated intelligence claiming such a threat existed, ignoring a plethora of evidence from weapons inspectors and independent arms control analysts who said that Iraq had already achieved at least qualitative disarmament. Perhaps worst of all, they demonstrated an incredible level of hubris and stupidity in imagining that the United States could get away with an indefinite occupation of a heavily populated Arab country with a strong history of nationalism and resistance to foreign domination.

Nor does it appear that they were simply fooled by the Bush administration’s manufactured claims of an Iraqi threat. For example, Napolitano, after acknowledging that there were not really WMDs in Iraq as she had claimed prior to the invasion, argued that “In my view, there were lots of reasons for taking out Saddam Hussein.” Similarly, Clinton insisted months after the Bush administration acknowledged the absence of WMDs that her vote in favor of the resolution authorizing the invasion “was the right vote” and was one that, she said, “I stand by.”

Clearly, then, despite their much-touted “experience,” these nominees have demonstrated, through their support for the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, a profound ignorance of the reality of the Middle East and an arrogant assumption that peace, stability and democratic governance can be created through the application of U.S. military force.

Given that the majority of Democrats in Congress, a larger majority of registered Democrats nationally, and an even larger percentage of those who voted for Obama opposed the decision to invade Iraq, it is particularly disappointing that Obama would choose his vice-president, chief of staff, secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Homeland Security and special envoy to Afghanistan and Iraq from the right-wing minority who supported the war.

But the Iraq War isn’t the only foreign policy issue where these Obama nominees have demonstrated hawkish proclivities. In previous articles, I have raised concerns regarding the positions of Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Below is a list of some additional foreign policy appointees who are troubling …

A Friend of Death Squads Heading Intelligence

One of the most problematic Obama appointees is Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence. Blair served as the head of the U.S. Pacific Command from February 1999 to May 2002 as East Timor was finally freeing itself from a quarter century of brutal Indonesian occupation. As the highest ranking U.S. military official in the region, he worked to undermine the Clinton administration’s belated efforts to end the repression, promote human rights and support the territory’s right to self-determination. He also fought against Congressional efforts to condition support for the Indonesian military on improving their poor human rights record.

In April 1999, two days after a well-publicized massacre in which dozens of East Timorese civilians seeking refuge in a Catholic church in Liquica were hacked to death by Indonesian-backed death squads, Blair met in Jakarta with General Wiranto, the Indonesian Defense minister and military commander. Instead of pressuring Wiranto to end his support for the death squads, he pledged additional U.S. military assistance, which, according to The Nation magazine, the Indonesian military “took as a green light to proceed with the militia operation.” Two weeks later, and one day after another massacre, Blair phoned Wiranto and, rather than condemn the killings he “told the armed forces chief that he looks forward to the time when [the army will] resume its proper role as a leader in the region.”

Blair’s role in all this is well-known. The Washington Post, for example, reported several months later that “Blair and other U.S. military officials took a forgiving view of the violence surrounding the referendum in East Timor.” I was interviewed on NBC Nightly News at the time and spoke directly to Blair’s meetings earlier that year.

Combined with Obama’s selection of supporters of Morocco’s occupation and repression in Western Sahara and Israel’s occupation and repression in Palestine to other key foreign policy and national security posts, perhaps it is not surprising that he would pick someone who supported Indonesia’s occupation and repression in East Timor. That his pick for DNI would have acquiesced to massacres facilitated by U.S.-backed forces, however, is particularly disturbing.

A Super Hawk at the Pentagon

Obama’s decision to Bush appointee Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense was a shock and a betrayal to his supporters who believed that there would be a change in the Pentagon under an Obama administration.

Gates’ record of militarism and deceit includes his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, where he apparently took part in the cover-up of the Reagan administration’s crimes. Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh expressed frustration that Gates – well-known for his “eidetic memory” – curiously could not recall information his subordinates, under oath, had sworn they had told him. The special prosecutor’s final report noted, “The statements of Gates often seemed scripted and less than candid.” Indeed, the best the final report could say was that “a jury could find the evidence left a reasonable doubt that Gates either obstructed official inquiries or that his two demonstrably incorrect statements were deliberate lies.”

In addition, Howard Teicher, who served on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration, submitted a sworn affidavit that Gates engaged in secret arms transfers to Saddam Hussein’s regime during the 1980s in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. During this same period, according to former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who served as Gates’ branch chief, Gates was personally involved in the apparent manipulation of intelligence regarding Iran and the Soviet Union in order to back up questionable policies of the Reagan administration.

The quintessential hawk, Gates advocated a U.S. bombing campaign against Nicaragua in 1984, according to the Los Angeles Times, in order to “bring down” that country’s leftist government, arguing that “the only way that we can prevent disaster in Central America” is for the United States to “do everything in its power short of invasion to put that regime out.” Given there are today a number of Latin American countries under leftist governments more strategically significant than the tiny impoverished Nicaragua with which Gates was once so obsessed, one wonders how, as Obama’s Secretary of Defense, he will advise the new president to deal with these countries.

As he has for most of his career, Gates has been far to the right not only of the American public, but even that of the foreign policy establishment, most of which recognized that Nicaragua under the Sandinistas was of no threat to U.S. national security and that a bombing campaign would be a blatant violation of international law.

Unable to convince his superiors to bomb Nicaragua, Gates became a major supporter of the illegal supplying of arms to the Nicaraguan Contras, a notorious terrorist group responsible for the deaths of thousands of Nicaraguan civilians. In choosing Gates to head the Defense Department, Obama appears to be giving a signal that his opposition to international terrorism is limited to those who target Americans and their allies, not to terrorism overall.

Another Super-Hawk at NSC

Recently-retired Marine General Jim Jones -– who, like Gates, is a Republican and was a supporter of Senator John McCain in the November election –– has been named as Obama’s National Security Advisor. A pragmatic leader who reportedly opposed the decision to invade Iraq and has questioned the unconditional U.S. support for some of Israel’s more aggressive policies, Jones’ appointment is nonetheless troubling.

As NATO commander earlier this decade, Jones pushed for an expanded NATO role in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Perhaps not coincidentally, he joined the board of directors of Chevron soon after his retirement from the military as well becoming president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, which has called on the U.S. government to engage NATO “on energy security challenges and encourage member countries to support the expansion of its mandate to address energy security.”

Jones opposed any deadline for a withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, which sits on top of the second largest oil reserves in the world, declaring that “I think deadlines can work against us, And I think a deadline of this magnitude would be against our national interest.” A passionate supporter of the Vietnam War who apparently supported a U.S. invasion of Laos and Cambodia as well, Jones considered the war’s opponents to essentially be traitors. More recently, he has used rhetoric remarkably similar to that of defenders of that war to call for a dramatic escalation of the war in Afghanistan on the grounds that American “credibility” would be at stake if the United States withdrew.

The Nation’s contributing editor Robert Dreyfus, who refers to Jones as Obama’s “most hawkish advisor,” quotes a prominent Washington military analyst noting that “He’s not a strategic thinker,” but he will certainly join other Obama appointees in pushing the administration’s foreign policy to the right.

A Dangerous Pick for Special Envoy

Obama’s choice for special envoy to perhaps the most critical area of U.S. foreign policy – Afghanistan and Pakistan – has gone to a man with perhaps the most sordid history of any of the largely disappointing set of foreign policy and national security appointments.

Richard Holbrooke got his start in the Foreign Service during the 1960s in the notorious pacification programs in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. In the late 1970s, Holbrooke served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In this position, he played a major role in formulating the Carter administration’s support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and the bloody counter-insurgency campaign responsible for the deaths of up to a quarter million civilians. In a particularly notorious episode while heading the State Department’s East Asia division, Holbrooke convinced Carter to release South Korean troops under U.S. command in order to suppress a pro-democracy uprising in the city of Kwangju against the Chun dictatorship, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. He also convinced President Jimmy Carter to continue its military and economic support for the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.

In the former Yugoslavia, he epitomized the failed U.S. policy toward autocratic rulers that swings between the extremes of appeasement and war. He brokered a peace agreement in Bosnia which allowed the Serbs to hold on to virtually all of the land they had seized and ethnically cleansed in the course of that bloody conflict and imposed a political system based upon sectarian divisions over secular national citizenship. During the 1996 pro-democracy uprising in Serbia, Holbrooke successfully argued that the Clinton administration should back the Milosevic regime in suppressing the movement so to not risk the instability that might result from a victory by Serb democrats. In response to increased Serbian oppression in Kosovo just a couple years later, however, Holbrooke became a vociferous advocate of the 1999 U.S.-led bombing campaign, creating a nationalist reaction that set back the reconstituted pro-democracy movement once again. The young leaders of the pro-democracy movement, which finally succeeded in the nonviolent overthrow of the regime, remain bitterly angry at Holbrooke to this day.

Scott Ritter, the former chief UNSCOM inspector who correctly predicted the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and a disastrous outcome for the U.S. invasion, observes that “not only has he demonstrated a lack of comprehension when it comes to the complex reality of Afghanistan (not to mention Pakistan), Holbrooke has a history of choosing the military solution over the finesse of diplomacy.” Noting how the Dayton Accords were built on the assumption of a major and indefinite NATO military presence, which would obviously be far more problematic in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Europe, Ritter adds, “This does not bode well for the Obama administration.”

The Mixed Record of Susan Rice

The post of U.S. representative to the United Nations, which is being treated as a cabinet-level post in the Obama administration, is now held by Susan Rice, a protégé of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Perhaps the most impressive intellectual on Obama’s foreign policy team, she was a Rhodes Scholar who studied under Oxford professors Adam Roberts and Benedict Kingsbury at Oxford, strong supporters of international law and the United Nations.

Serving under President Clinton in the National Security Council and later as assistant Secretary of State for Africa, she helped reverse the decades-old policy of support for Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, she received praise from civil society groups in Africa for her support for human rights but also criticism for her strident support for economic liberalization and free trade initiatives.

Though seen by many as one of the most moderate of Obama’s foreign policy team, she – like some of the more hawkish Obama appointees – is also handicapped by her tendency to allow her ideological preconceptions to interfere with her analysis.

Though, unlike most of Obama’s other top foreign policy appointees, she has serious reservations about invading Iraq, she naively bought into many of the myths used to justify it. For example, back in 2002 – years after Iraq had disarmed itself of its chemical and biological weapons and eliminated its nuclear program – she declared, “It’s clear that Iraq poses a major threat” and, despite the success of the UN’s disarmament program, she insisted “It’s clear that its weapons of mass destruction need to be dealt with forcefully, and that’s the path we’re on.”

In February 2003, Colin Powell testified before the United Nations that Iraq had somehow reconstituted its biological and chemical weapons arsenal and its nuclear weapons program and had somehow hidden all this from the hundreds of United Nations inspectors then in Iraq engaged in unfettered inspections. None of this was true and his transparently false claims were immediately challenged by UN officials, arms control specialists, and much of the press and political leadership in Europe and elsewhere. (See my article written in response to his testimony: Mr. Powell, You’re No Adlai Stevenson.)

Rice, however, insisted that Powell had “proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them and I don’t think many informed people doubted that.” In light of such widespread and public skepticism from knowledgeable sources, Rice’s dismissal of all the well-founded criticism was positively Orwellian: those who blindly accepted Powell’s transparently false claims were “well-informed,” while the UN officials, arms control specialists, and others knowledgeable of the reality of the situation were presumably otherwise.

What this means is that Rice will have a serious credibility problem at the United Nations, whose remarkable success at disarming Iraq she summarily dismissed. When Rice speaks out in important debates about international peace and security in the UN Security Council, including possible genuine threats, there will inevitably be some questions as to whether she should be believed. This raises the questions as to why Obama would choose someone with a potentially serious credibility in such a sensitive position just as the United States is trying to restore its influence in the world body.

Some Bright Spots?

There have been some somewhat hopeful appointments as well. One is that of Leon Panetta, former Congressman and the first chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, to direct the CIA. He has been praised for his principled opposition to the abuse of detainees under the Bush administration and his forced resignation from the Nixon Justice Department for opposing the administration’s opposition to school desegregation.

The major concern is that Panetta – a former Republican known as a centrist who tends to seek compromise more than he is one to shake things up – will likely find himself as simply another part of the center-right national team Obama is putting together, especially since he will be serving under DNI director Blair. As The Nation’s Dreyfus put it, “He’s no match for the hardheaded spooks who run the place, and he’s no match for the military brass who are elbowing their way to more and more control of intelligence spending and priorities.”

On the one hand, when the best that can be said of a nominee for an important national security position is that he opposes school segregation and believes that the U.S. government should not be engaging in torture, it is indicative of just how for down the bar has been lowered. At the same time, Panetta’s appointment is a clear signal that the Obama administration will not tolerate the kind of abuses that occurred under its predecessor.

Another potentially positive appointment is that of George Mitchell as special Middle East envoy. Though a hawkish supporter of right-wing Israeli governments during his days in the Senate, the report of his 2000-2001 commission on Israeli-Palestinian violence was surprisingly balanced and reasonable. Its failures rested in the limitations imposed upon it by the Clinton Administration and the failure of the Bush administration to follow through on its recommendations. The question now is whether Mitchell and President Obama will be willing to effectively challenge Israel’s refusal to withdraw the bulk of its illegal settlements from the occupied West Bank to make a viable Palestinian state possible. (See my article: Is Mitchell Up to the Task?)

Obama as Commander-in-Chief

Even though many of Obama’s key foreign policy appointments are not that different than previous administration, it is important to remember that Barack Obama will be a very different commander-in-chief than George W. Bush.

For one thing, unlike the outgoing president, Obama is non-ideological, very knowledgeable and highly intelligent. He was quite prescient about the irrationality of invading Iraq, even speaking at an anti-war rally at a time when most Americans supported going to war and – prior to becoming a national figure – he espoused a number of progressive positions on issues ranging from human rights to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In other words, even if Gates does call for bombing Venezuela, Obama is not going to do that. Even if Napolitano comes to him claiming that invading Iran is necessary to defend the homeland, Obama will recognize the folly of such a recommendation. Even if Clinton renews her attacks on the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, Obama is unlikely to go along with them. Even if Jones argues for sending in the Marines to capture Saudi oil fields, Obama will not take such a recommendation seriously.

It is also quite possible that all this is a shrewd political move on Obama’s part of placing center-right appointees in visible positions to better enable him to pursue a more progressive foreign policy, not unlike Bush using the moderate Colin Powell to sell the Iraq war. Had George McGovern won the 1972 presidential election, he would have likely appointed a number of prominent figures from the hawkish Democratic foreign policy establishment to key positions to assuage skeptics as well, but that does not mean he would have abandoned the core principles which had been the basis of his campaign and his entire political career.

Another reason that an Obama administration will not likely be as far to the right as these appointments may imply is that his electoral base – energized by popular opposition to the Iraq War – is perhaps the most progressive in history when it comes to foreign policy. It is also the most engaged and organized base the party has ever seen. Once the relief of Bush’s departure and the glow of Obama’s inauguration has worn off, he will have to face the millions of people responsible for his election who will expect him to keep his word regarding “change you can believe in.”

Indeed, with a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic officials have rarely led in terms of a more progressive foreign policy. They have generally abandoned hawkish policies only after being forced to do so by popular mobilizations. From Vietnam to Central America to the nuclear arms race to South Africa to Iraq, Democratic leaders initially allied with the Republicans until they recognized their political futures were at stake unless they listened to the rank-and-file Democrats for whom they were dependent for their re-election. Then, and only then, were they willing to change course.

As a result, what may be most important will not be the people that Obama appoints, but the choices we give them.


Holbrooke: Insensitive Choice for a Sensitive Region

Obama’s choice for special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, arguably the most critical area of U.S. foreign policy, is a man with perhaps the most sordid history of any of the largely disappointing set of foreign policy and national security appointments.

Richard Holbrooke got his start in the Foreign Service during the 1960s, in the notorious pacification programs in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. This ambitious joint civilian-military effort not only included horrific human rights abuses but also proved to be a notorious failure in curbing the insurgency against the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon. This was an inauspicious start in the career of someone Obama hopes to help curb the insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

In Asia

In the late 1970s, Holbrooke served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In this position, he played a major role in formulating the Carter administration’s support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and the bloody counterinsurgency campaign responsible for up to a quarter-million civilian deaths. Having successfully pushed for a dramatic increase in U.S. military aid to the Suharto dictatorship, he then engaged in a cover-up of the Indonesian atrocities. He testified before Congress in 1979 that the mass starvation wasn’t the fault of the scorched-earth campaign by Indonesian forces in the island nation’s richest agricultural areas, but simply a legacy of Portuguese colonial neglect. Later, in reference to his friend Paul Wolfowitz, then the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Holbrooke described how “Paul and I have been in frequent touch to make sure that we keep [East Timor] out of the presidential campaign, where it would do no good to American or Indonesian interests.”

In a particularly notorious episode while heading the State Department’s East Asia division, Holbrooke convinced Carter to release South Korean troops under U.S. command in order to suppress a pro-democracy uprising in the city of Kwangju. Holbrooke was among the Carter administration officials who reportedly gave the OK to General Chun Doo-hwan, who had recently seized control of the South Korean government in a military coup, to wipe out the pro-democracy rebels. Hundreds were killed.

He also convinced President Jimmy Carter to continue its military and economic support for the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.

At the UN

Holbrooke, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1990s, criticized the UN for taking leadership in conflict resolution efforts involving U.S. allies, particularly in the area of human rights. For example, in October 2000 he insisted that a UN Security Council resolution criticizing the excessive use of force by Israeli occupation forces against Palestinian demonstrators revealed an unacceptable bias that put the UN “out of the running” in terms of any contributions to the peace process.

As special representative to Cyprus in 1997, Holbrooke unsuccessfully pushed the European Union to admit Turkey, despite its imprisonment of journalists, its ongoing use of the death penalty, its widespread killing of civilians in the course of its bloody counter-insurgency war in its Kurdish region, and other human rights abuses.

In the Former Yugoslavia

Holbrooke is perhaps best known for his leadership in putting together the 1995 Dayton Accords, which formally ended the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Though widely praised in some circles for his efforts, Holbrooke remains quite controversial for his role. For instance, the agreement allows Bosnian Serbs to hold on to virtually all of the land they had seized and ethnically cleansed in the course of that bloody conflict. Indeed, rather than accept the secular concept of national citizenship that has held sway in Europe for generations, Holbrooke helped impose sectarian divisions that have made the country — unlike most of its gradually liberalizing Balkan neighbors — unstable, fractious, and dominated by illiberal ultra-nationalists.

As with previous U.S. officials regarding their relations with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Panama’s Manuel Noriega, Holbrooke epitomizes the failed U.S. policy toward autocratic rulers that swings between the extremes of appeasement and war. For example, during the 1996 pro-democracy uprising in Serbia Holbrooke successfully argued that the Clinton administration should back Milosevic, in recognition of his role in the successful peace deal over Bosnia, and not risk the instability that might result from a victory by Serb democrats. Milosevic initially crushed the movement. In response to increased Serbian oppression in Kosovo just a couple years later, however, Holbrooke became a vociferous advocate of the 1999 U.S.-led bombing campaign, creating a nationalist reaction that set back the reconstituted pro-democracy movement once again. The pro-democracy movement finally succeeded in the nonviolent overthrow of the regime, following Milosevic’s attempt to steal the parliamentary elections in October 2000, but the young leaders of that movement remain bitterly angry at Holbrooke to this day.

Scott Ritter, the former chief UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspector who correctly assessed the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and predicted a disastrous outcome for the U.S. invasion, observes that “not only has he demonstrated a lack of comprehension when it comes to the complex reality of Afghanistan (not to mention Pakistan), Holbrooke has a history of choosing the military solution over the finesse of diplomacy.” Noting how the Dayton Accords were built on the assumption of a major and indefinite NATO military presence, which would obviously be far more problematic in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Europe, Ritter adds: “This does not bode well for the Obama administration.”

Ironically, back in 2002-2003, when the United States had temporarily succeeded in marginalizing Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, Holbrooke was a strong supporter of redirecting American military and intelligence assets away from the region in order to invade and occupy Iraq. Obama and others presciently criticized this reallocation of resources at that time as likely to lead to the deterioration of the security situation in the country and the resurgence of these extremist groups.

It’s unclear, then, why Obama would choose someone like Holbrooke for such a sensitive post. Indeed, it’s unclear as to why — having been elected on part for his anti-war credentials — Obama’s foreign policy and national security appointments have consisted primarily of such unreconstructed hawks. Advocates of a more enlightened and rational foreign policy still have a long row to hoe.

Is Mitchell Up to the Task?

Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as special Middle East envoy may signal a step in the right direction regarding U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there remain questions as to whether Mitchell is up to the task and whether the Obama administration is willing to put some muscle into the process.

Mitchell was raised in a blue-collar family in Waterville, his mother a textile worker who had emigrated from Lebanon as a young woman. Though one of the most prominent Arab-Americans in politics, Mitchell rarely embraced his Arab heritage openly. As a senator, he received large campaign contributions from right-wing political action committees supportive of Israeli policies and was a strong proponent of unconditional military and economic aid to the rightist Israeli government of Yitzak Shamir. He initially opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He even criticized James Baker, the secretary of State under the first Bush administration, for characterizing the illegal Jewish settlements ringing eastern Jerusalem on lands seize by Israeli forces in the 1967 war as being on occupied territory. As such, he effectively argued that the United States should recognize Israel’s unilateral annexation of a part of the West Bank in contravention of international law and a series of UN Security Council resolutions.

Following his retirement from the Senate, Mitchell led the commission which oversaw the Northern Ireland peace process and played an important mediating role in negotiations between Catholic and Protestant leaders, which resulted in the Good Friday Accords of 1998. His even-handed approach and conflict-resolution skills were widely praised and have led to hopes that he may be able to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward as well.

The Mitchell Commission

Following the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2000, the UN General Assembly created a commission charged with investigating the causes and possible solutions to the violence chaired by the noted American international law professor Richard Falk. As a means of taking attention away from the UN commission, which was expected to stress Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law, President Bill Clinton appointed a U.S.-led team to put forward its own report. Following a U.S.-convened security conference in the Egyptian town of Sharm el-Sheikh, Clinton announced the formation of the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, led by Mitchell. Other members of the commission included former U.S. Senator Warren Rudman, also a strong supporter of Israel’s earlier right-wing governments, as well as former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, a strong ally of Israel. They outnumbered the more moderate members, Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland and European Union representative Javier Solana.

The United States determined that the commission would operate primarily out of Washington and would limit its investigations on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories. Israeli journalist Meron Benvenisti, after witnessing Mitchell’s team in their interviews with Israeli officials predicted, “The committee will become one more instrument for stifling any initiative for examining the actions of Israeli security forces and for uncovering the truth lurking behind the propaganda smokescreen.”

The commission’s report, released at the end of April 2001, ended up being surprisingly balanced. It refused to hold either Israelis or Palestinians solely responsible for the breakdown of the peace process or the ongoing violence, countering claims by both the Clinton and Bush administrations as well as congressional leaders of both parties, who put all the blame on the Palestinian side. In its appeal for a ceasefire, the report called on the Palestine Authority (PA) to “make clear through concrete action to Palestinians and Israelis alike that terrorism is reprehensible and unacceptable, and that the PA will make a 100 percent effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators” and for the Israelis to “ensure that the IDF adopt and enforce policies and procedures encouraging non-lethal responses to unarmed demonstrators, with a view to minimizing casualties and friction between the two communities.”

The report chose not to attribute the outbreak of violence solely to the provocative visit of then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to an Islamic holy site in occupied East Jerusalem the previous autumn. The commission also countered charges by congressional leaders of both parties that the violence was part of a preconceived plan by the Palestinians to launch a violent struggle. Instead, it correctly recognized the root of the uprising was in Palestinian frustrations in the peace process to get their land back or to establish a viable Palestinian state. The fighting had been fueled, according to the report, by unnecessarily violent responses by both sides in the early hours and days of the fighting. The commission failed to call for an international protection force to separate the two sides, however, underscoring an unwillingness to support the decisive steps necessary to curb further bloodshed.

The Mitchell Commission Report also failed to call for Israel to withdraw from its illegal settlements as required under UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465, and 471. However, it did call on Israel to “freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements,” emphasizing that a “cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the Government of Israel freezes all settlement activity.”

The report also failed to call for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories, even in return for security guarantees, which Israel is required to do under UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, an omission Mitchell subsequently claimed was necessary due to the limited mandate that President Clinton gave to the commission.

The report called on the Palestine Authority to prevent gunmen from firing at Israeli military and civilian areas from Palestinian-populated areas as a means of minimizing civilian casualties on both sides. It also called on Israel to lift its closures of Palestinian population centers, transfer all tax revenues owed to the Palestine Authority, and permit Palestinians who had been employed in Israel to return to their work. It also emphasized the need for Israeli security forces and settlers to “refrain from the destruction of homes and roads, as well as trees and other agricultural property in Palestinian areas” and for the PA to “renew cooperation with Israeli security agencies to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that Palestinian workers employed within Israel are fully vetted and free of connections to organizations and individuals engaged in terrorism.”

Bush Administration Interpretation

In June of that year, the Bush administration — spearheaded by CIA director George Tenet — began pushing for a ceasefire from the Palestinian side, as called for in the Mitchell Commission Report, but without including concomitant recommendations for a settlement freeze and other Israeli responsibilities. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon specifically rejected these recommendations and pledged to continue building more settlements.

Tenet called on a complete cessation of violence for one week followed by a six-week cooling-off period, during which Israeli forces would withdraw to their positions prior to the outbreak of violence in September 2000. In effect, the United States used the Mitchell report to put the pressure on the Palestinians to cease their resistance to Israeli occupation forces without demanding anything in return from Israel other than redeploying their forces to the demarcation lines to which they were already obliged to withdraw according to previous treaties. Nevertheless, the Palestine Authority agreed.

The PA was unable to control Palestinian militants who rejected this one-sided U.S.-brokered agreement, however, since it did not provide the Palestinians with any incentive to end the uprising. As a result, the violence continued, and Israel refused to withdraw from reconquered Palestinian land. Tenet’s proposal not only didn’t insist that Israel stop building more settlements, as the Mitchell Commission had recommended, it didn’t include international monitors or verifiers for a ceasefire or establish buffer zones to separate the two sides. Instead, the United States essentially permitted Israel to serve as monitor, verifier, and decision-maker for the Tenet Plan’s implementation and subsequent steps.

To follow up on the Tenet Plan, President Bush dispatched retired Marine Commandant Anthony Zinni in November 2001 as his special Middle East envoy. His mission was solely to establish a ceasefire, not to restart negotiations or address any of the other elements of the Mitchell report. Zinni’s plan, presented on March 26, 2002, used unconditional language in reference to the Palestinians, requiring them to “cease” violent activities, while only asking the Israelis to “commit to cease.” This new U.S. proposal also dropped the Tenet Plan’s requirement that Israel should stop its attacks on “innocent civilian targets” and its other restrictions against “proactive” Israeli military operations. Instead, Zinni’s proposal would permit Israeli attacks on Palestinian Authority buildings, including prisons, “in self-defense to an imminent terrorist attack,” a situation that the Israelis have always defined quite liberally.

The failure of the commission headed by Mitchell, then, occurred not because of Mitchell himself but because the Bush administration, supported by the bipartisan congressional leadership, refused to press the Israeli side to abide by its recommendations.

The question regarding Mitchell in his new role, then, is whether the Obama administration will be willing to support him to take a more balanced approach to the peace process, which emphasizes the responsibilities of both parties.

Is “Balance” Enough?

The 2001 Mitchell Commission report was praised at the time for being relatively “balanced.” That term has already cropped up in some of the more favorably reactions to Obama’s appointment of the former Senate leader. However, even should President Obama and Congress allow for such “balance,” will that be enough to bring peace?

The problem in being “balanced” in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it fails to recognize the unbalanced nature of a conflict between an occupied people and their occupiers. While balance in the sense of recognizing that both Israelis and Palestinians have the fundamental right to live in peace and security is indeed critical, it should be remembered that Palestinian land is being occupied, confiscated, and colonized, not Israeli land; that Israeli military and economic power is dramatically greater than that of the Palestinians; that Palestinian civilians have been killed in far greater numbers than Israeli civilians; and that it’s the Palestinians and not the Israelis who have been denied their fundamental right of statehood.

Indeed, it’s doubtful Mitchell would have authored a balanced report regarding Iraq and Kuwait during Kuwait’s six months under Saddam Hussein’s army of occupation, or a balanced report regarding Indonesia and East Timor during that island nation’s 24-year occupation by its powerful neighbor.

However strong the ties between the United States and Israel may be, Israel as the occupying power bears the most responsibility for resolving the conflict, particularly since the recognized Palestinian leadership already acceded to Israeli control of 78% of Mandatory Palestine. Despite the many faults of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which governs the majority of the Palestinian population on the West Bank, its positions on the outstanding issues of the conflict — settlements, withdrawal from occupied lands, sharing Jerusalem, and the rights of refugees — are far more consistent with international law, UN Security Council resolutions, and the consensus of the international community than are the U.S. or Israeli positions.

And even assuming the best of intentions by Mitchell, there remains the fundamental contradiction of the United States being both the chief mediator of the conflict and the primary diplomatic, economic, and military backer of the Israeli occupation. Until the Obama administration recognizes that contradiction, Mitchell will have a very difficult task before him.


Daring to Hope on the Washington Mall

On Tuesday, I dared to hope.

I even felt a little patriotic.

I was among the two million people who assembled on the Washington Mall to witness the moment. I was willing to come all the way from California, pay the air fare — and leave the carbon footprint — in order to join my daughter Kalila, a student at Earlham College in Indiana, in watching history being made.

I have written a series of articles raising concerns about various positions Obama had staked out during the campaign and, in particular, raising questions about some of the appointments Obama has made. I will no doubt write more such articles over the next four to eight years.

And yet I was able to shed tears of joy on a number of occasions this Tuesday. I wasn’t just relieved that a Democrat had won the White House. I was actually (what’s this strange feeling?) happy.

Kalila and I arrived at the Washington Mall in the pre-dawn hours to get as close to the Capitol as possible without tickets. Most of the people in our segment of the mall who had also made the effort to arrive at 4:00 am were African-Americans, many of whom had traveled great distances — not without financial and other sacrifices — in order to be there in person to watch a black man inaugurated as president of the United States, something few of them imagined they would ever see.

We entertained each other singing some of the great spirituals popularized during the civil rights struggle I had learned in my youth in the early 1960s when my father taught at Tougaloo, a black college in Mississippi, where he served as faculty advisor for the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). From out of the darkness in the sub-freezing temperatures came the sounds of “Woke up This Morning with Mind Set on Freedom,” “Keep Your Eyes on that Prize,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Lift Up Your Voice and Sing.”

Growing up in the South, I have vivid memories of Jim Crow laws. Though my family and I were white, virtually all our neighbors were black, and while the violence towards us was limited to some random gunshots being fired at our house, the reality of the fear from repression by state authorities was all around me, along with the daily humiliation my young friends and their parents experienced from segregation. I could go to almost all the movie theaters, playgrounds, amusement parks, fast food outlets, and engage in as many other recreational activities a child could want, but I could not go with any of my friends.

Against all odds, people organized, faced down the attack dogs and fire hoses, and forced an end to that kind of legal discrimination in America. People of color were able to take on new positions of leadership once denied them. At the same time, however, there was no question that real power remained almost exclusively in the hands of white men.

Yet here I was, in the nation’s capital, watching an African-American being sworn in as president of the United States. A man who, as a boy, would have been considered illegitimate in Mississippi and nearly two dozen other states for having a white mother and a black father. A man who is married to a descendant of slaves who grew up in the largely-segregated black neighborhoods of South Chicago. A man who for years worked as an organizer in the black community and was strongly influenced by the progressive theology of the black church.

A New Patriotism

His election was not a result of, as one African-American comedian put it, people being “so worried about whether he was a Muslim or a socialist, they forgot he was black!” People knew. Obama’s race presumably cost him far more votes than it gained. Yet he won decisively and is entering office with a 78 percent approval rating, the highest ever recorded for an incoming president.

Who would have imagined as little as five years ago, with the jingoistic militarism which then so dominated American political discourse, that the next president of the United States would be an African-American man with a Muslim father, with the middle name of Hussein, who had for years served as a community organizer with progressive grassroots organizations, and at that time had held no elected office higher than representing a predominantly black district in a state senate?

The personal significance of the day hit me when someone came through the crowd handing out American flags and I found myself eagerly reaching for one.

I have held flags when I thought it was appropriate for certain ceremonial occasions, but I don’t recall since I was very young of actually being eager to do so. This past reluctance came not out of any innate lack of patriotism, but from the fact that the flag has too often represented national chauvinism or support for U.S. militarism and imperialism, not from a genuine love of country. Yet on that day, I could actually feel a deep pride for being an American and being seen waving a flag.

I also knew that there were millions of people around the world excitedly watching the inauguration ceremony on television from modern apartments in the Netherlands to remote villages in Kenya to the urban slums of Indonesia to the rubble of Gaza who were thinking that maybe they could actually feel good about the United States again. I thought about how different it would now feel for me to show my U.S. passport going through customs in a foreign country and not feel embarrassed because of my president.

Minutes after the end of the ceremony, with viewing areas for the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue already full, I asked a secret service agent about the possibility of hanging out at the corner of the mall by the National Gallery where the parade commenced. He said that it would be a great place to view where the floats and marching bands converged to start the parade, but that President Obama would be joining the procession a block north from that point at Pennsylvania Avenue.

I paused. “President Obama.” Only minutes old, the combination of that title and that name were the most beautiful words I could possibly hear, particularly after hearing so constantly for the past eight years the words “President Bush.” I held on to my daughter and burst into tears.

Goodbye Bush

Obama has become president of the United States because rather than appealing to the worst instincts of American voters — which had made possible the disastrous eight years of the Bush administration — he appealed to our best instincts. Instead of divisiveness, he offered unity. Instead of manipulating people’s fear and prejudices, he offered a sense of hope and faith stemming from the most progressive and visionary aspects of our country’s heritage. It was a message which inspired Kalila and so many other young people to help elect him president. It was a message which made it possible for a sometime cynical leftist like me to stand for hours in the cold on the Washington Mall and wave an American flag.

Indeed, the only emotion that came close to the excitement of seeing Obama come to office was seeing George W. Bush leaving office.

Soon after the end of the swearing-in ceremony, as the now ex-president lifted off in his helicopter from the Capitol grounds for Andrews Air Force Base to take the jet that would bring him back home to Texas, hundreds of thousands of people on the mall started waving at the helicopter and joyously singing, “Na-na na-na, na-na na-na, hey hey-ey, good-bye!”

While Bush’s departure alone is cause for celebration, Obama appears committed to not just ending some of the worst policies of the previous administration, but to forge ahead with new and better policies.

A couple hours after the inauguration ceremony, I got a call on my cell phone from my eldest child Shanti from Bellingham, Washington, where she is a student in Western Washington University’s community health program and serves as the assistant coordinator of the university’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Alliance. As someone who had been rather skeptical of Obama (and had voted for Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney in November), she was shedding tears of relief and amazement reading the new White House web site’s section on “Support for the LGBT Community.” This often-critical observer of the political process was sharing her excitement as to how the United States now has an administration committed to supporting full civil unions, opposing bans on same-sex marriages, expanding adoption rights, promoting sex education and HIV prevention efforts beyond the failed abstinence-only policies of the current administration, as well as ending workplace discrimination for both sexual preference and gender identity.

This dramatic policy shift serves to illustrate the fact that, while many of Obama’s policies will disappoint, frustrate and anger many of us in the progressive movement, we should not fail to recognize that there will be some fundamental differences in the policies of the federal government on many levels; that, given the power of the American presidency, even minor differences in policies can have a positive impact on millions of lives and that, while there are certain institutional imperatives which will inevitably limit the degree to which even the most enlightened administration can bring about a shift in priorities, this does not obscure the fact that, in terms of public policy, we are witnessing the most dramatic change in American leadership since Franklin Roosevelt succeeded Herbert Hoover in 1933.

Our Foot in the Door

Tuesday evening, I joined hundreds of veteran activists gathered in the Smithsonian Postal Museum for the Inaugural Peace Ball. Hanging out in gowns and tuxedos with such progressive luminaries as Amy Goodman, Holly Near, Michael Lerner, Medea Benjamin, Harry Belafonte, Kevin Danaher, John Cavanaugh, and others, there was a clear sense that it was a time to celebrate a historic achievement. It was remarkable to be among so many people well to the left of the Democratic Party — and, in many cases, to the left of me — who were nevertheless incredibly excited at what has transpired.

Obama’s centrist proclivities notwithstanding, his message has been clear from the beginning: “Is not about me,” he said again and again, “it’s about you.” As someone whose political rise in Chicago came not from the slimy politics of that city’s political machine but from his grass roots constituency who got to know him as a community organizer, he recognizes where real power comes from. And there is no question that his political base nationally is to his left — at least as articulated in many of the positions he took as a presidential candidate — and that he will therefore need to be responsive to that base.

Amy Goodman recalled the story from a small fundraising event in New Jersey for Obama about a year ago, at which a supporter expressed her concern with the longstanding U.S. support for Israel’s occupation policies, an issue in which even the majority of liberal Democrats have tended to align themselves with the Republican right. Given the unwillingness of successive administrations of either party to push for a viable peace settlement, the activist asked if she could expect anything better under an Obama administration. Obama responded with a story about A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights activist and union organizer who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. At a meeting with Franklin Roosevelt early in his administration about the possibility of adopting a policy that would grant the largely African-American porters rights under federal law, the president replied that he had been convinced by Randolph of the legitimacy of pushing for such legislation, but that he needed a constituency that would make him do it. A constituency was indeed mobilized and the Railway Labor Act came into law in 1934.

This is the challenge Obama is putting before us. From Palestine to the environment to almost every other issue, we must not simply wait and hope for Obama to do the right thing and then complain bitterly if he does not, but organize massively and effectively enough to give him no other choice but to adopt a progressive agenda. History has shown us that, with a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic leaders will rarely actually lead, but they are far more willing than Republicans to respond to grass roots demand for change. No one recognizes this more than Barack Obama, now the president of the United States.

Perhaps the most important power the president possesses in American politics is the power to set the agenda. No president, even Ronald Reagan, has had as much power of persuasion as does President Obama. No president in the past four decades has come to office with such a sizable majority in Congress. No president since Franklin Roosevelt has been faced with so many serious crises that he could get away with launching ambitious new programs and dramatic shifts in policies. No president has come to office with so much popular support and with such a large, passionate and well-organized base of supporters.

In short, Obama has the ability to do a lot of good as long as we reject the temptation of feeling hopeless and cynical and as long as we recommit ourselves to organize and work for change.

So, let’s dare to hope. Let’s work to make change possible. We have never had a better opportunity.


Virtually the Entire Dem-Controlled Congress Supports Israel’s War Crimes in Gaza

In a direct challenge to the credibility of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Red Cross and other reputable humanitarian organizations, an overwhelming bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress has gone on record supporting President George W. Bush’s position that the Israeli armed forces bear no responsibility for the large and growing numbers of civilian casualties from their assault on the Gaza Strip.

As of this writing, at least 400 civilians have been killed by Israeli forces, primarily using U.S.-supplied weaponry.

Shattering hopes that an expanded Democratic congressional majority and a new Democratic administration might lead to a more moderate foreign policy, the resolutions put forward an extreme reinterpretation of international humanitarian law, apparently designed to exonerate nations with superior firepower from any liability for inflicting large-scale civilian casualties.

The Senate resolution, primarily written and sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., passed the Senate by unanimous consent on a voice vote. Among the 33 co-sponsors were such otherwise liberal Democratic senators as Barbara Boxer, Calif,; Richard Durbin, Ill,; Carl Levin, Mich.; Sherrod Brown, Ohio; Barbara Mikulski, Md.; and 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry, Mass.

An even stronger House resolution, sponsored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., passed the House by a lopsided 390-5 roll call vote (with 22 members voting “present”). Both resolutions placed the blame for the death and destruction exclusively on the Palestinian side and are being widely interpreted as a rebuke to the international human rights community and the United Nations, which have cited both Hamas and the Israeli government for war crimes.

The resolutions favorably quote Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice extensively, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, regarding responsibility for civilian deaths and for the causes of the conflict. No one else is cited in the resolutions, indicating who Pelosi, Reid and the resolutions’ other sponsors see as the authoritative sources of information on international humanitarian law in the region.

Although some analysts are already referring to the Gaza war as “a final and eloquent testimony to the complete failure of the neoconservative movement in United States foreign policy,” Pelosi, Reid and virtually the entire Democratic membership of Congress have decided to ally themselves with this failed ideology of the outgoing Bush administration rather than blaze a new trail of moderation and common sense in anticipation of new leadership in the White House. Indeed, Pelosi’s and Reid’s strategy in pushing through these resolutions may have been part of an attempt to box in Obama — to force him to continue Bush’s hard-right foreign policy. That is, a policy in which, in the name of the “war on terror,” fundamental principles of international law are deemed to be expendable.

To the Right of Bush

Some of the language in the resolution put forward by Pelosi, Reid and their colleagues even place the Democratic Party to the right of the Bush administration. For example, while the Jan. 8 U.N. Security Council resolution — which received the endorsement of Rice and other administration officials — condemns “all acts of violence and terror directed against civilians,” the congressional resolution only condemns the violence and terror of Hamas.

Indeed, just as the Security Council unanimously passed its resolution stressing “the urgency of and calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza,” Congress immediately weighed in with language apparently designed to prevent one. The Senate and House resolutions called for a cease-fire only on the condition that it “prevents Hamas from retaining or rebuilding the capability to launch rockets and mortars against Israel.” Given that most of these rockets and mortars are of a rather crude design that can be made in local machine shops from scrap metal and other easily obtainable materials, and is therefore the kind of capability that can not really be completely eliminated, it appears that this clause would make a cease-fire impossible.

Emboldened by this strong bipartisan support from the legislative branch of its most important ally, Israel rejected the U.N.’s terms for a cease-fire.

Also on Jan. 8, Israeli forces killed two U.N. humanitarian aid workers as they were attempting to provide relief supplies, and the International Red Cross released a strongly worded statement noting that the Israeli military had “failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded.” The Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders noted that “Palestinian humanitarian aid and health workers have been killed, and hospitals and ambulances have been bombed.”

Congress, however, went on record in the resolutions praising Israel for having “facilitated humanitarian aid to Gaza.”

Both resolutions “hold Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire,” despite the fact that there had been scores of minor violations during the months of the cease-fire by both sides and that Israel had launched a major incursion into the Gaza Strip on Nov. 4, 2008, assassinating several Hamas leaders, an action the Israeli press speculated was designed to provoke Hamas into not renewing the cease-fire when it expired the following month. Israel then tightened its siege on Nov. 5, banning even humanitarian aid from coming through. Hamas appeared willing to renew the cease-fire in return for Israel renouncing further such incursions and lifting the siege, but Israel refused.

While these Israeli provocations do not justify Hamas’ failure to renew the cease-fire and certainly not Hamas’ decision to once again begin firing rockets into civilian-populated areas of Israel — which is a war crime — the language of the resolutions gives a very misleading understanding of the events leading up to the war. Ironically, despite blaming Hamas exclusively for not renewing the cease-fire, the resolutions also claim that returning to the terms of that cease-fire agreement “is unacceptable.”

Yet these were by no means the most egregious misrepresentations in these Democratic-led congressional initiatives.

Redefining International Humanitarian Law

In perhaps the most dangerous clause of the resolution, the House called “on all nations … to condemn Hamas for deliberately embedding its fighters, leaders and weapons in private homes, schools, mosques, hospitals and otherwise using Palestinian civilians as human shields.”

According to international humanitarian law, however, “human shields” require the deliberate use of civilians as a deterrent to avoid attack on one’s troops or military objects. Despite repeated calls to the offices of the resolutions’ principal Democratic sponsors, not one of them could provide a single example of this actually occurring during the current wave of fighting. Similar accusations in a 2006 resolution supported by Pelosi, Reid and other Democratic leaders during the five weeks of devastating Israeli attacks on Lebanon that summer were later systematically rebuked in a detailed and meticulously researched 249-page report by Human Rights Watch. (See my article “The Democrats and the “Human Shields” Myth”).

In this resolution, the Democrats appear to be attempting to redefine just what constitutes human shields. Despite this desperate effort to rationalize the large-scale killing of Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces, the fact that a Hamas leader lives in his own private home, attends a neighborhood mosque and seeks admittance in a local hospital does not constitute the use of human shields. Indeed, the vast majority of leaders of most governments and political parties live in private homes in civilian neighborhoods, go to local houses of worship and check in to hospitals when sick or injured, along with ordinary civilians. Furthermore, given that the armed wing of Hamas is a militia rather than a standing army, virtually all of their fighters live in private homes and go to neighborhood mosques and local hospitals, as well.

In short, Pelosi and other congressional leaders appear to be advancing a radical and dangerous reinterpretation of international humanitarian law that would allow virtually any country with superior air power or long-range artillery to get away with war crimes.

Hamas is certainly guilty of less-severe violations of international humanitarian law, such as not taking all necessary steps it should to prevent civilian casualties when it positions fighters and armaments too close to concentrations of civilians. However, this is not the same thing as deliberately using civilians as shields. And, as Human Rights Watch noted, even the presence of armed personnel and weapons near civilian areas “does not release Israel from its obligations to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian property during military operations.” Furthermore, the nature of urban warfare, particularly in a territory as densely populated as the Gaza Strip, makes the proximity of retreating fighters and their equipment to civilians unavoidable in many cases.

It is also important to note that, even if Hamas were using human shields in the legal definition of the term, it still does not absolve Israel from its obligation to avoid civilian casualties. Amnesty International has noted that the Geneva Conventions make it clear that even if one side is shielding itself behind civilians, such a violation “shall not release the Parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians.” Despite claims by some members of Congress to the contrary, Israel’s Jan. 6 attack on the U.N. school in Gaza, which killed more than 40 civilians, was still a war crime, even if Israeli forces were being fired upon from the vicinity. (The argument by those defending this atrocity is comparable to claiming that it would be legitimate for a SWAT team, in order to kill some bank robbers shooting at them, to also kill the bank employees and customers being held hostage since the bad guys were using “human shields.”)

Rewriting the U.N. Charter – and the Magna Carta

Pelosi’s resolution not only undermines international humanitarian law, it seeks to resurrect a fallacy that has been rejected by Western legal thought since the Magna Carta. In an effort to absolve Israel for the hundreds of civilian casualties it has inflicted with U.S.-supplied weaponry, the House resolution “calls on all nations … to lay blame both for the breaking of the calm and for subsequent civilian casualties in Gaza precisely where blame belongs, that is, on Hamas.”

In reality, however wrong — morally, legally and politically — Hamas’ decision to not renew the cease-fire, it simply does not absolve Israel of its responsibility under international humanitarian law for the far greater civilian deaths its armed forces have inflicted upon the Palestinians in Gaza. Indeed, it has long been a principle of Western jurisprudence that someone who is the proximate cause of a crime cannot claim innocence simply because of the influence of another party. By refuting this nearly 800-year old legal principle, this becomes, literally, a reactionary piece of legislation.

In support of the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, the House also goes on record citing the Israeli invasion as part of Israel’s “right to act in self-defense to protect its citizens against Hamas’ unceasing aggression, as enshrined in the United Nations Charter.” In reality, the U.N. Charter explicitly prohibits nations going to war unless they “first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.” Israel — with strong bipartisan U.S. support — has refused to even meet with Hamas. Furthermore, while Article 51 does allow countries the right to resist an armed attack, it does not grant any nation the right to engage in such massive and disproportionate warfare against densely packed cities and refugee camps.

Not a Product of AIPAC

It appears that these two resolutions, unlike some similar measures in recent years, were not drafted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee AIPAC, the influential “pro-Israel” lobby. Nor were they primarily the initiative of right-wing Republican House leaders like Ohio Rep. John Boehner, or his predecessor Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, as were previous resolutions related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The lack of Democratic input on such resolutions has been used on a number of occasions in the past by Democratic staff members on Capitol Hill in an effort to excuse congressional Democrats for voting in favor of such initiatives, arguing that they ended up voting for a particular resolution in order to “show support for Israel,” but did not necessarily approve of the specific wording of the resolution.

They have no such excuses this time, however, since these resolutions came primarily out of the offices of Pelosi, Reid, and House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif.

There appears to be little popular support for such an unqualified endorsement of Israeli war-making, however, with public opinion — particularly among Democrats — largely opposed to the assault on Gaza. And the American Jewish community has never seen so much dissent over Washington’s support for Israel’s militaristic and self-defeating policies toward the Palestinians. Despite the myth that it is somehow “political suicide” to oppose such resolutions, every Democrat who failed to vote for a similar 2006 House resolution supporting Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and the Gaza Strip was re-elected that November by a bigger margin than they were two years earlier. Furthermore, virtually all of the principal authors and sponsors of this year’s resolutions come from safe districts.

One of major reasons these Democrats support such right-wing legislation is not because AIPAC is all-powerful, but because there is so little pressure in the other direction to counter it. For example, MoveOn, Democracy for America, Council for a Livable World, and other “progressive” political organizations that endorse candidates for national office continue to back Democrats who support dangerous militaristic policies in the Middle East. (Ironically, if Democrats Nita Lowey, N.Y.; Robert Wexler, Fla;, John Hall, N.Y.; Henry Waxman, D-Calif.; Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas; Carolyn Maloney, N.Y.; Edward Markey, Mass.; and other co-sponsors of the House bill were running for the Israeli Knesset instead of the U.S. House of Representatives, their positions on human rights and international law in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would put them on that legislature’s right wing.)

Since the next congressional election is nearly two years away, it is too early to tell whether the growing opposition within the progressive community to U.S. support for the large-scale Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians will be sufficient to deny those who defend Israeli war crimes the endorsements of progressive groups in the 2010 campaign. Given that like-minded organizations in previous decades denied their support for Democratic hawks who defended human rights abuses by U.S.-backed governments in Central America, Southeast Asia, Southern Africa and other conflict regions, it should be possible.

The problem is that there is still a fair amount of anti-Arab racism, which seems to take the perspective that the human rights of Palestinians somehow don’t count. It’s telling, for example, that Pelosi, the chief sponsor of the House resolution, has been praised by progressive publications for her “consistent support for human rights.” Similarly, the late Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., also an outspoken defender of Israeli human rights abuses, was repeatedly re-elected to chair the ironically named congressional Human Rights Caucus and was eulogized in a number of progressive periodicals following his death last year as Congress’ “leading defender of human rights.” (See my article Lantos’ Tarnished Legacy.)

Israel would not be able to get away with its ongoing attacks against Palestinian civilians were it not for the support of the Bush administration. The Bush administration would not be able to get away with supporting these atrocities were it not being backed by the Democratic-controlled Congress, including many of its otherwise more liberal members. And the overwhelming support by congressional Democrats of Bush’s stance would not be possible were it not for the continued acquiescence of the progressive community to these Democrats’ embrace of his right-wing militaristic agenda in the Mideast.

Peace between Israel and Palestine may not be possible until progressive activists stop seeing members of Congress who support such resolutions as powerless victims of some mythical cabal of wealthy Jews and instead hold them just as accountable for their actions as those who took comparable right-wing positions regarding Central America or East Timor in previous years, or those who embrace such policies regarding Iraq and Iran today. Instead of protesting in front of Israeli consulates, demonstrators will need to focus their protests more on congressional offices, as well as engage in more disruptive tactics, such as sit-ins and other forms of nonviolent direct action. It may require withholding campaign contributions, supporting progressive challengers in primary races and threatening to back Green or other third-party challengers in the general election.

There are signs this may be possible. The past couple of weeks have witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of concern on the plight of the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. In addition, while the corporate media is as biased in support of U.S. client states as ever, much of the widely read independent news/opinion Web sites — which are increasingly important in shaping public opinion — have had a fair amount of critical coverage. This could be significant in that the more the conflict is addressed in terms of human rights and international law, and the less it is addressed in terms of Israel versus Palestine, the less likely the debate will be dominated by those with rigid ideological agendas.

This should also help make it easier to recognize how U.S. policy is not just bad for the Palestinians, but ultimately bad for Israel as well, as Israeli militarism goaded on by U.S. politicians from Bush to Pelosi has left the Jewish state increasingly isolated in the world and has greatly contributed to the growing ranks of Islamic extremists, such as those drawn to Hamas.

And, should Barack Obama — who has refused to join the chorus of other Democratic leaders in backing the Israeli invasion — decide as president to finally apply some “tough love” towards Israel in the face of a hostile Congress, he is going to need the American people to back him up.


Interview: Obama’s foreign policy appointments (audio)

Secretary of State nominee Hilary Clinton supported the Iraq War from Day One and has denounced Obama’s intention to negotiate with Iran. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates is an advocate of continuing the war in Iraq. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is known for his unswerving support of Israel.

To discuss what these and other appointments will mean for U.S. foreign policy, we speak with Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.


Democrats Back Bush, Reject Human Rights Groups, in Support for Israeli Assault on Gaza

The Democratic leadership’s strident support for the ongoing Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip underscores how the Democrats suffer from the same illusions as the outgoing Republican administration: that placing an Arab territory under debilitating sanctions that punish the population as a whole, bombarding heavily populated civilian areas — resulting in widespread casualties among innocent people — and invading and occupying territories with a long history of resistance to outsiders will somehow lead to greater moderation from those afflicted.

The reality is that Israel’s war against Hamas and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip is no more likely to result in more rational and compromising positions from the Palestinian side than the firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel will lead to more rational and compromising positions from the Israelis.

As a result, the hard-line militaristic position of the Democratic Party does not bode well for a more enlightened Middle East policy after eight disastrous years under President George W. Bush.

On Capitol Hill, resolutions are being prepared in the House and Senate to defend the Bush administration’s policy of unconditional support for the Israeli assaults, which as of this writing have led to the deaths of 500 people, at least one-quarter of whom were civilians. Unless there is widespread public opposition, it appears that the overwhelming majority of congressional Democrats will vote along with their Republican colleagues in favor of these resolutions, thereby giving Israel a blank check to continue the carnage and, as a result, give Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups the excuse to continue their attacks against Israeli civilians as well.

Democrats Goad Israel Into War

In June, 38 of 49 Democratic senators — including Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton of New York — wrote a letter (PDF) to President Bush that Americans for Peace Now, a moderate Zionist group, warned would build “a defense, in advance, for a large Israeli military offensive in Gaza.” The letter also urged the Bush administration to block any U.N. Security Council resolution critical of Israel, claiming that United Nations opposition to Israeli attacks against crowded urban areas constituted a refusal to “acknowledge Israel’s right to self-defense.” An almost identical letter in the House, drafted by House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., received the signatures of 150 of the body’s 230 Democrats.

Americans for Peace Now noted that such an Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip would likely result in large-scale civilian casualties. In apparent anticipation of the large numbers of Palestinian deaths that would result from such military operations in the Gaza Strip, the House passed a resolution (PDF) in March, during an outbreak of fighting, that claimed, “Those responsible for launching rocket attacks against Israel routinely embed their production facilities and launch sites amongst the Palestinian civilian population, utilizing them as human shields.” The resolution goes on to specifically condemn “the use of innocent Palestinian civilians as human shields by those who carry out rocket and other attacks” and yet again makes note of Palestinians who “continue to be utilized as human shields by terrorist organizations.”

But according to Joe Stork of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, while Hamas failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians in the densely populated Gaza Strip, the watchdog group had found no instances of Hamas actually using human shields in the legally defined sense of deliberately using civilians as a means of deterring counterattacks. Despite my contacting the offices of more than a dozen Democratic members of Congress who supported the resolution — all of whom are members of the so-called Progressive Caucus — none of them could provide any examples of Hamas actually using human shields. It appears that the Democrats’ goal in pushing through this resolution was to convince their constituents that it was the Palestinians, not the Israelis who were attacking them, who were responsible for civilian casualties and who would likewise be responsible for the far greater number of civilian casualties that would inevitably result from the Israeli bombardment and invasion which was to commence later that year.

The resolution also gave unqualified support for the Israeli government’s attacks against the Gaza Strip, even as Amnesty International condemned Israel’s “reckless disregard for civilian life” in its bombing and shelling of civilian population centers. The AI report also noted how the attacks by Palestinians against civilian-populated areas in Israel, which the report also roundly condemned, “does not make it legitimate for the Israeli authorities to launch reckless air and artillery strikes which wreak such death and destruction among Palestinian civilians.”

Not a single one of the 230 Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against the resolution. (There were four abstentions, and 12 did not vote.) This sent a clear signal that there would be no opposition in Congress — which provides over $4 billion annually in unconditional military and economic aid to the Israeli government — for an even larger military assault against the Palestinian population of the enclave.

Democratic support for an Israeli war against the Gaza Strip went beyond such nonbinding resolutions. In apparent anticipation of the long-planned Israeli invasion of Gaza — which was to begin just three months later — the Democratic-controlled Congress voted in September to send 1,000 of the highly sophisticated GBU-39 missiles to Israel, which have been used on a large scale in the Israeli assault.

On Nov. 4, Israel launched a brief but significant military incursion into Gaza. Though the raid was a clear violation of the cease-fire that had been in place at the time, no criticism was heard in Washington. There had been a series of minor violations by both sides, but the magnitude of this raid appeared designed to provoke Hamas into letting the cease-fire lapse. Israel then tightened its siege of the Gaza Strip, prompting Human Rights Watch to note that “Israel’s severe limitations on the movement of nonmilitary goods and people into and out of Gaza, including fuel and medical supplies, constitutes collective punishment, also in violation of the laws of war.” Despite this, President-elect Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders continued to defend the sanctions.

Hamas appeared willing to renew its cease-fire in return for Israel lifting the blockade on humanitarian and other aid and ending its periodic raids into Gaza and assassinations of Hamas officials. However, Israel — again, supported by Obama and Democratic congressional leaders — refused. Now, however, despite these leading Democrats’ opposition to nonmilitary means, which could have salvaged the cease-fire and prevented the rocket attacks into Israel, they are now claiming that Israel had “no choice” but to launch its massive assault on Gaza Strip in retaliation.

In a Dec. 28 interview, Obama’s chief adviser David Axelrod appeared to align the president-elect with the Bush administration in its support for Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip, citing an Obama statement from the summer, in which he said, “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”

Axelrod ignored the fact that since Israel had launched its bombardment of the Gaza Strip, rocket attacks against Israeli towns had actually increased. This raises concerns that an Obama administration, like the Bush administration, may be so ideologically committed to military solutions in political conflicts that it too will ignore even obvious failures.

Rationalizing Civilian Deaths

Amnesty International USA, in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on January 2, noted its dismay “at the lopsided response by the U.S. government to the recent violence and its lackadaisical efforts to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” The Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization went on to note, “Without diminishing the responsibility of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups for indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians, the U.S. government must not ignore Israel’s disproportionate response and the longstanding policies which have brought the Gaza Strip to the brink of humanitarian disaster.”

Leading Democrats rushed to the administration’s defense, however. As reports of widespread civilian casualties among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip from the Israeli attacks continued to pour in, Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., insisted that “When Israel is attacked, the United States must continue to stand strongly with its friend and democratic ally.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., stated ,”I strongly support Israel’s right to defend its citizens against rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza.” House Majority Leader Hoyer claimed, “Israel is acting in clear self-defense in response to heinous rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza” and that Israel has “an unequivocal right” to engage in its military operations. Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., whom the Democrats recently named to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declared “Israel has a right, indeed a duty, to defend itself in response to the hundreds of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza over the past week.” Even prominent liberals, like Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., insisted that “This use of Gaza as a base from which to attack Israel left Israel with no choice except self defense.”

These Democrats have been unable to explain how a number of the most deadly Israeli strikes, which took place nowhere near any legitimate military targets, constitute acts of self-defense. These have included the missile which struck a group of students leaving the U.N.-sponsored Gaza Training College in downtown Gaza, the bombing of a mosque during evening prayers, another missile attack centered in civilian neighborhoods in the crowded refugee camps of Jabalya and Rafah, as well as a series of attacks against the territory’s one university. Scores of others who worked in government offices under the Hamas administration but had nothing to do with rocket attacks against Israel — or any other military function of the Islamist party — have been killed as well.

Yet some Democrats have gone as far as to simply deny that attacks against civilian targets are taking place at all. For example, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and its Middle East subcommittee, has insisted that (PDF), contrary to reports of reputable human rights groups, international journalists and other eyewitnesses, “The Israeli response has been a series of targeted strikes against Hamas militants, aimed directly at those who are launching the attacks on Israeli civilian population centers” and that “the Israeli military is taking extreme caution to limit civilian casualties.”

The Democratic Party has a history of denying Israeli culpability in the deaths of civilians during military operations in the Gaza Strip. During an Israeli offensive against the territory in 2006, prior to Hamas’ takeover of the Palestinian Authority, Amnesty International declared:

“The Israeli authorities’ deliberate and wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure and property in the Gaza Strip amounts to a war crime. The destruction and the disproportionate and arbitrary restrictions imposed by the Israeli army on the movement of people and goods into and from the Gaza Strip also amount to collective punishment of the entire population. This violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits punishing protected persons for offenses they have not committed.”

Similarly, the International Red Cross, long recognized as the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, declared that Israel was violating the principle of proportionality, as well as the prohibition against collective punishment.

Despite this and similar reports by other reputable human rights groups, Democrats – with only nine dissenting votes – joined their Republican colleagues in passing a House resolution claiming Israel’s attacks, which resulted in widespread civilian casualties, were “in accordance with international law.” The resolution went on to rebuke reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch’s criticisms of Israel’s failure to distinguish between military and civilian targets by including language that praised Israel’s “longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss” and welcomed “Israel’s continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties.”

The resolution also insisted that Israel’s attacks were in accordance with “Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.” However, Article 33 of the Charter requires all parties to “first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, inquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice,” which Israel — with the backing of most of these same congressional Democrats — has refused to do. Article 51 does allow countries the right to resist an armed attack, but not the right to engage in massive and disproportional attacks against crowded urban population centers.

The 2006 resolution, sponsored by the late Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., then the ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, commended President Bush for “fully supporting Israel” in the face of widespread international opposition, including by some of the United States’ closest allies.

With only nine dissenting Democratic votes in the 435-member body, this placed virtually the entire Democratic Caucus on the side of Bush against a broad consensus of the international community, including all major human rights organizations.

Opposing Peace Negotiations

It should come as no surprise that when negotiations are ruled out, war results. But instead of encouraging negotiations between Hamas and Israel, the Democratic Party has actively discouraged it.

Even President-elect Obama, who has expressed willingness to meet with leaders of Iran and other hard-line regimes, spoke out in early 2008 against any negotiations with the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, which received the majority of seats in the most recent Palestinian parliamentary elections. Indeed, the Democrats — led by Vice President-elect Joe Biden — have criticized the Bush administration for allowing the Palestinian Authority to go ahead with free elections in the first place.

This opposition to peace talks comes despite polls showing that a majority of Israelis — including the mayors of the Israelis towns on the receiving end of Hamas rocket attacks — do support negotiations with Hamas. Unlike the Democratic Party, the Israeli public is much more cognizant of the fact that — whether it be a short-term cease-fire, a permanent peace agreement or something in between — ending the violence without such negotiations will be impossible. Indeed, at the very time Obama was rejecting the idea of talks with Hamas, senior members of the Israeli security establishment were urging the Israeli government to engage in such talks, arguing that any agreement made without Hamas would fail.

Furthermore, for a number of years, the Israelis have been regularly negotiating indirectly with Hamas through Egyptian intermediaries and Palestinian prisoners. Back when Hamas was in charge of local governments in some West Bank towns several years ago, there were direct talks on a number of logistical issues. The Democratic Party, however, insisted that such talks not take place — apparently because the prospect of negotiations would get in the way of Israel’s massive military offensive against the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.

The Democratic Party’s leadership has long argued that no talks should take place until Hamas formally recognizes Israel’s right to statehood, yet many of these same Democrats have had no problems with meeting, and even providing support for, Israeli parties and political groups that insist that the Palestinians do not have the right to statehood, such as the Likud Bloc, which is favored to win the upcoming Israeli elections. In addition, a sizable majority of Democrats in Congress have gone on record insisting that an explicit Hamas recognition of Israel as a Jewish state be a precondition for ending sanctions and inclusion in the peace process, which is not only an unnecessary prerequisite for negotiating a long-term cease-fire, but is something which even the Israeli government has not demanded.

Silencing Democratic Critics

Democratic Party leaders have made it clear that any dissent from within the party to their right-wing position rejecting any contact with Hamas will not be tolerated.

For example, Robert Malley, who served as a National Security Council member and special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs under the Clinton administration, was already under fire for having the temerity to object to the Bush administration’s effort to organize a coup against Hamas, noting how, “Almost every decision the United States has made to interfere with Palestinian politics has boomeranged.” He had been serving as an informal adviser to Obama during the presidential race, but was forced to sever his ties with the campaign when it was revealed that, as part of his efforts to promote a cease-fire in his role with the International Crisis Group, he had met with Hamas officials. For the Obama campaign, such peace-making efforts simply could not be tolerated.

In an even better-known example, former President Jimmy Carter was quoted last spring as saying, “I think there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that, if Israel is ever going to find peace with justice concerning the relationship with their next-door neighbors … Hamas will have to be included in the process,” adding, “I think someone should be meeting with Hamas to see what we can do to encourage them to be cooperative.” He then met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Syria.

Former presidents have historically been largely exempt from criticisms by elected officials of their own party. When it comes to expressing the opinion that the United States should figure out a way to include Hamas in negotiations, however, such courtesy quickly evaporated. Carter, winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, was immediately denounced by Democratic Party leaders. Steve Grossman, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee claimed, “Carter’s views are antithetical to those in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. He does not speak for either [Clinton or Obama] in any shape or form, and I think there’s pretty much unanimity on that point.”

As a result of his efforts to avoid war, Carter was denied a major platform at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, the first time in memory that a former president had been denied such an honor at his party’s quadrennial gathering.

It’s important to remember that both Malley and Carter were leaders of NGOs whose very mandates are to engage in conflict resolution. What these Democrats appear to be saying is that the Bush administration’s policy of not talking with those deemed undesirable should not just be the policy of the U.S. government, but every nongovernmental organization and private citizen as well.

But that policy is inconsistent. Through his role at the Carter Center, for example, Carter met with war criminals like Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Haiti’s Raoul Cedras and Uganda’s Martin Ojul, with no complaints from these same Democratic leaders. Their opposition to Carter’s willingness to speak with Hamas appears not to have been because of the group’s role in war crimes but because Carter had hoped such dialogue might pave the way for a negotiated settlement. Indeed, a number of those who supported Carter’s exclusion from the Democratic National Convention had themselves met with unsavory characters as well, including right-wing Cuban and Nicaraguan terrorist leaders, some of the worst dictators on the planet, and others with even more blood on their hands than Meshaal.

What Explains the Democrats’ Position?

All this inevitably raises the question as to why, in a conflict where both sides are clearly at fault, the Democratic Party has chosen to put 100 percent of the blame on the Palestinian side and has unconditionally supported the actions of the Israelis, who are not only the more powerful of the two, but whose violations of international humanitarian law are many times greater than those of Hamas.

There are those who try to defend these Democratic hawks by claiming it would somehow be political suicide to oppose any resolution supporting Israeli military actions. But a recent Rasmussen poll indicates that Americans are closely divided regarding the legitimacy of Israel’s attacks on Gaza Strip, with Democratic voters opposing the offensive by a 55 percent-to-31 percent margin. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict overall, 7 of 10 Americans believe the United States should not take sides — yet another example of how out of step the Democratic leadership is with the American public.

Nor does this strident support for Israeli militarism have anything to do with a genuine concern for Israel’s legitimate security interests, given that every previous effort to defeat Hamas militarily has backfired. Similarly, Israel’s 2006 offensive against Lebanon’s Hezbollah — also overwhelmingly supported by congressional Democrats — proved to be a disaster for Israel.

The primary factor for the Democratic leaderships’ hawkish stance regarding the current conflict appears to be the relative inaction of the progressive base of the Democratic Party. Most rank-and-file Democrats, at least intuitively, recognize the fallacy of the Democratic leadership’s militaristic line and are aware that support for the Bush administration Middle East policy has brought neither justice for the Palestinians nor security for Israel. At the same time, however, the grassroots of the party has failed to mobilize in a way that would let the party leadership know there is a price to pay for supporting such a right-wing agenda.

Despite their efforts to undermine international humanitarian law and rationalize for the killing of civilians, many of these Democratic supporters of Bush administration policy toward Israel and Palestine still receive the enthusiastic endorsements and PAC funding from MoveOn and other supposedly “progressive” political organizations.

The message to Democratic lawmakers, then, appears to be that the progressive community doesn’t care about international humanitarian law, at least if the victims happen to be Arabs.

And, although American Israel Public Affairs Committee and allied right-wing groups have certainly played a role in limiting debate within the Democratic Party, their power is often so grossly exaggerated as to create a fatalistic view that it is not worth even trying to get these Democratic officials to support a more balanced policy on Israel and Palestine. This results in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy by leading progressive activists to blithely accept that otherwise progressive members of Congress embrace positions essentially identical to that of the Bush administration. Congressional staffers — always off the record — often play into anti-Semitic stereotypes by claiming that their boss is but a hapless victim of rich and powerful Jews behind the scenes and should therefore not be held accountable for his or her actions. It is profoundly disappointing that so many peace and human rights activists appear to fall for it.

If there is to be peace between Israel and Palestine, we must stop giving these Democratic hawks the benefit of the doubt or making excuses for them. This means engaging in protests at their speaking events and sit-ins in their offices. It means withholding campaign contributions, supporting progressive challengers in primary races and backing Green or other third-party challengers in the general election.

Until they know there is a political price to pay for their anti-Palestinian — and ultimately anti-Israel — positions, they will continue to push their right-wing foreign policy agenda. How the progressive community addresses the ongoing tragedy in the Gaza Strip in the coming days and weeks may determine the direction for the incoming Obama administration and the 111th Congress, not just in terms of U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine, but in foreign policy overall.

For ultimately, the issue is not about Hamas versus the Israeli government, or even Palestine versus Israel, but between supporters of international humanitarian law and those who believe the United States and its allies are somehow exempt.


America’s Hidden Role in Hamas’s Rise to Power

No one in the mainstream media or government is willing to acknowledge America’s sordid role interfering in Palestinian politics.

The United States bears much of the blame for the ongoing bloodshed in the Gaza Strip and nearby parts of Israel. Indeed, were it not for misguided Israeli and American policies, Hamas would not be in control of the territory in the first place.

Israel initially encouraged the rise of the Palestinian Islamist movement as a counter to the Palestine Liberation Organization, the secular coalition composed of Fatah and various leftist and other nationalist movements. Beginning in the early 1980s, with generous funding from the U.S.-backed family dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, the antecedents of Hamas began to emerge through the establishment of schools, health care clinics, social service organizations and other entities that stressed an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, which up to that point had not been very common among the Palestinian population. The hope was that if people spent more time praying in mosques, they would be less prone to enlist in left- wing nationalist movements challenging the Israeli occupation.

While supporters of the secular PLO were denied their own media or right to hold political gatherings, the Israeli occupation authorities allowed radical Islamic groups to hold rallies, publish uncensored newspapers and even have their own radio station. For example, in the occupied Palestinian city of Gaza in 1981, Israeli soldiers — who had shown no hesitation in brutally suppressing peaceful pro-PLO demonstrations — stood by when a group of Islamic extremists attacked and burned a PLO-affiliated health clinic in Gaza for offering family-planning services for women.

Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement), was founded in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who had been freed from prison when Israel conquered the Gaza Strip 20 years earlier. Israel’s priorities in suppressing Palestinian dissent during this period were revealing: In 1988, Israel forcibly exiled Palestinian activist Mubarak Awad, a Christian pacifist who advocated the use of Gandhian- style resistance to the Israeli occupation and Israeli-Palestinian peace, while allowing Yassin to circulate anti-Jewish hate literature and publicly call for the destruction of Israel by force of arms.

American policy was not much different: Up until 1993, U.S. officials in the consular office in Jerusalem met periodically with Hamas leaders, while they were barred from meeting with anyone from the PLO, including leading moderates within the coalition. This policy continued despite the fact that the PLO had renounced terrorism and unilaterally recognized Israel as far back as 1988.

One of the early major boosts for Hamas came when the Israeli government expelled more than 400 Palestinian Muslims in late 1992. While most of the exiles were associated with Hamas-affiliated social service agencies, very few had been accused of any violent crimes. Since such expulsions are a direct contravention to international law, the U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the action and called for their immediate return. The incoming Clinton administration, however, blocked the United Nations from enforcing its resolution and falsely claimed that an Israeli offer to eventually allow some of exiles back constituted a fulfillment of the U.N. mandate. The result of the Israeli and American actions was that the exiles became heroes and martyrs, and the credibility of Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinians grew enormously — and so did its political strength.

Still, at the time of the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993, polls showed that Hamas had the support of only 15 percent of the Palestinian community. Support for Hamas grew, however, as promises of a viable Palestinian state faded as Israel continued to expand its colonization drive on the West Bank without apparent U.S. objections, doubling the amount of settlers over the next dozen years. The rule of Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat and his cronies proved to be corrupt and inept, while Hamas leaders were seen to be more honest and in keeping with the needs of ordinary Palestinians. In early 2001, Israel cut off all substantive negotiations with the Palestinians, and a devastating U.S.-backed Israeli offensive the following year destroyed much of the Palestinian Authority’s infrastructure, making prospects for peace and statehood even more remote. Israeli closures and blockades sank the Palestinian economy into a serious depression, and Hamas-run social services became all the more important for ordinary Palestinians.

Seeing how Fatah’s 1993 decision to end the armed struggle and rely on a U.S.-led peace process had resulted in increased suffering, Hamas’ popularity grew well beyond its hard-line fundamentalist base and its use of terrorism against Israel — despite being immoral, illegal and counterproductive — seemed to express the sense of anger and impotence of wide segments of the Palestinian population. Meanwhile — in a policy defended by the Bush administration and Democratic leaders in Congress — Israel’s use of death squads resulted in the deaths of Yassin and scores of other Hamas leaders, turning them into martyrs in the eyes of many Palestinians and increasing Hamas’ support still further.

Hamas Comes to Power

With the Bush administration insisting that the Palestinians stage free and fair elections after the death of Arafat in 2004, Fatah leaders hoped that coaxing Hamas into the electoral process would help weaken its more radical elements. Despite U.S. objections, the Palestinian parliamentary elections went ahead in January 2006 with Hamas’ participation. They were monitored closely by international observers and were universally recognized as free and fair. With reformist and leftist parties divided into a half-dozen competing slates, Hamas was seen by many Palestinians disgusted with the status quo as the only viable alternative to the corrupt Fatah incumbents, and with Israel refusing to engage in substantive peace negotiations with Abbas’ Fatah-led government, they figured there was little to lose in electing Hamas. In addition, factionalism within the ruling party led a number of districts to have competing Fatah candidates. As a result, even though Hamas only received 44 percent of the vote, it captured a majority of parliament and the right to select the prime minister and form a new government.

Ironically, the position of prime minister did not exist under the original constitution of the Palestinian Authority, but was added in March 2003 at the insistence of the United States, which desired a counterweight to President Arafat. As a result, while the elections allowed Abbas to remain as president, he was forced to share power with Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister.

Despite claiming support for free elections, the United States tried from the outset to undermine the Hamas government. It was largely due to U.S. pressure that Abbas refused Hamas’ initial invitation to form a national unity government that would include Fatah and from which some of the more hard-line Hamas leaders would have presumably been marginalized. The Bush administration pressured the Canadians, Europeans and others in the international community to impose stiff sanctions on the Palestine Authority, although a limited amount of aid continued to flow to government offices controlled by Abbas.

Once one of the more-prosperous regions in the Arab world, decades of Israeli occupation had resulted in the destruction of much of the indigenous Palestinian economy, making the Palestinian Authority dependent on foreign aid to provide basic functions for its people. The impact of these sanctions, therefore, was devastating. The Iranian regime rushed in to partially fulfill the void, providing millions of dollars to run basic services and giving the Islamic republic — which until then had not been allied with Hamas and had not been a major player in Palestinian politics — unprecedented leverage.

Meanwhile, record unemployment led angry and hungry young men to become easy recruits for Hamas militants. One leading Fatah official noted how, “For many people, this was the only way to make money.” Some Palestinian police, unpaid by their bankrupt government, clandestinely joined the Hamas militia as a second job, creating a dual loyalty.

The demands imposed at the insistence of the Bush administration and Congress on the Palestinian Authority in order to lift the sanctions appeared to have been designed to be rejected and were widely interpreted as a pretext for punishing the Palestinian population for voting the wrong way. For example, the United States demanded that the Hamas-led government unilaterally recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist, even though Israel has never recognized the right of the Palestinians to have a viable state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or anywhere else. Other demands included an end of attacks on civilians in Israel while not demanding that Israel likewise end its attacks on civilian areas in the Gaza Strip. They also demanded that the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority accept all previously negotiated agreements, even as Israel continued to violate key components of the Wye River Agreement and other negotiated deals with the Palestinians.

While Hamas honored a unilateral cease-fire regarding suicide bombings in Israel, border clashes and rocket attacks into Israel continued. Israel, meanwhile, with the support of the Bush administration, engaged in devastating air strikes against crowded urban neighborhoods, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties. Congress also went on record defending the Israeli assaults — which were widely condemned in the international community as excessive and in violation of international humanitarian law — as legitimate acts of self-defense.

A Siege, Not a Withdrawal

The myth perpetuated by both the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties was that Israel’s 2005 dismantling of its illegal settlements in the Gaza Strip and the withdrawal of military units that supported them constituted effective freedom for the Palestinians of the territory. American political leaders from President George W. Bush to House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have repeatedly praised Israel for its belated compliance with a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for its withdrawal of these illegal settlements (despite Israel’s ongoing violations of these same resolutions by maintaining and expanding illegal settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights).

In reality, however, the Gaza Strip has remained effectively under siege. Even prior to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the Israeli government not only severely restricted — as is its right — entry from the Gaza Strip into Israel, but also controlled passage through the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, as well. Israel also refused to allow the Palestinians to open their airport or seaport. This not only led to periodic shortages of basic necessities imported through Egypt, but resulted in the widespread wasting of perishable exports — such as fruits, vegetables and cut flowers — vital to the territory’s economy. Furthermore, Gaza residents were cut off from family members and compatriots in the West Bank and elsewhere in what many have referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison.

In retaliation, Hamas and allied militias began launching rocket attacks into civilian areas of Israel. Israel responded by bombing, shelling and periodic incursions in civilian areas in the Gaza Strip, which, by the time of the 2006 cease-fire, had killed over 200 civilians, including scores of children. Bush administration officials, echoed by congressional leaders of both parties, justifiably condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas-allied units into civilian areas of Israel (which at that time had resulted in scores of injuries but only one death), but defended Israel’s far more devastating attacks against civilian targets in the Gaza Strip. This created a reaction that strengthened Hamas’ support in the territory even more.

The Gaza Strip’s population consists primarily of refugees from Israel’s ethnic cleansing of most of Palestine almost 60 years ago and their descendents, most of whom have had no gainful employment since Israel sealed the border from most day laborers in the late 1980s. Crowded into only 140 square miles and subjected to extreme violence and poverty, it is not surprising that many would become susceptible to extremist politics, such as those of the Islamist Hamas movement. Nor is it surprising that under such conditions, people with guns would turn on each other.

Undermining the Unity Government

When factional fighting between armed Fatah and Hamas groups broke out in early 2007, Saudi officials negotiated a power-sharing agreement between the two leading Palestinian political movements. U.S. officials, however, unsuccessfully encouraged Abbas to renounce the agreement and dismiss the entire government. Indeed, ever since the election of a Hamas parliamentary majority, the Bush administration began pressuring Fatah to stage a coup and abolish parliament.

The national unity government put key ministries in the hands of Fatah members and independent technocrats and removed some of the more hard-line Hamas leaders and, while falling well short of Western demands, Hamas did indicate an unprecedented willingness to engage with Israel, accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and negotiate a long-term cease-fire with Israel. For the first time, this could have allowed Israel and the United States the opportunity to bring into peace talks a national unity government representing virtually all the factions and parties active in Palestinian politics on the basis of the Arab League peace initiative for a two-state solution and U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. However, both the Israeli and American governments refused.

Instead, the Bush administration decided to escalate the conflict by ordering Israel to ship large quantities or weapons to armed Fatah groups to enable them to fight Hamas and stage a coup. Israeli military leaders initially resisted the idea, fearing that much of these arms would end up in the hands of Hamas, but — as Israeli journalist Uri Avnery put it — “our government obeyed American orders, as usual.’ That Fatah was being supplied with weapons from Israel while Hamas was fighting the Israelis led many Palestinians — even those who don’t share Hamas’ extremist ideology — to see Fatah as collaborators and Hamas as liberation fighters. This was a major factor leading Hamas to launch what it saw as a preventive war or a countercoup by overrunning the offices of the Fatah militias in June 2007 and, just as the Israelis feared, many of these newly supplied weapons have indeed ended up in the hands of Hamas militants. Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip ever since.

The United States also threw its support to Mohammed Dahlan, the notorious Fatah security chief in Gaza, who — despite being labeled by American officials as “moderate” and “pragmatic” — oversaw the detention, torture and execution of Hamas activists and others, leading to widespread popular outrage against Fatah and its supporters.

Alvaro de Soto, former U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, stated in his confidential final report leaked to the press a few weeks before the Hamas takeover that “the Americans clearly encouraged a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas” and “worked to isolate and damage Hamas and build up Fatah with recognition and weaponry.” De Soto also recalled how in the midst of Egyptian efforts to arrange a cease-fire following a flare-up in factional fighting earlier this year, a U.S. official told him that “I like this violence . it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.”

Weakening Palestinian Moderates

For moderate forces to overcome extremist forces, the moderates must be able to provide their population with what they most need: in this case, the end of Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip and its occupation and colonizing of the remaining Palestinian territories. However, Israeli policies — backed by the Bush administration and Congress — seem calculated to make this impossible. The noted Israeli policy analyst Gershon Baskin observed, in an article in the Jerusalem Post just prior to Hamas’ electoral victory, how “Israel ‘s unilateralism and determination not to negotiate and engage President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority has strengthened the claims of Hamas and weakened Abbas and his authority, which was already severely crippled by . Israeli actions that demolished the infrastructures of Palestinian Authority governing bodies and institutions.”

Bush and an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress have also thrown their support to the Israeli government’s unilateral disengagement policy that, while withdrawing Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, has expanded them in the occupied West Bank as part of an effort to illegally annex large swaths of Palestinian territory. In addition, neither Congress nor the Bush administration has pushed the Israelis to engage in serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which have been suspended for over six years, despite calls by Abbas and the international community that they resume. Given that Fatah’s emphasis on negotiations has failed to stop Israel’s occupation and colonization of large parts of the West Bank, it’s not surprising that Hamas’ claim that the U.S.-managed peace process is working against Palestinian interests has resonance, even among Palestinians who recognize that terrorism by Hamas’ armed wing is both morally reprehensible and has hurt the nationalist cause.

Following Hamas’ armed takeover of Gaza, the highly respected Israeli journalist Roni Shaked, writing in the June 15 issue of Yediot Ahronoth, noted that “The U.S. and Israel had a decisive contribution to this failure.” Despite claims by Israel and the United States that they wanted to strengthen Abbas, “in practice, zero was done for this to happen. The meetings with him turned into an Israeli political tool, and Olmert’s kisses and backslapping turned Abbas into a collaborator and a source of jokes on the Palestinian street.”

De Soto’s report to the U.N. Secretary-General, in which he referred to Hamas’ stance toward Israel as “abominable,” also noted that “Israeli policies seemed perversely designed to encourage the continued action by Palestinian militants.” Regarding the U.S.- instigated international sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, the former Peruvian diplomat also observed that “the steps taken by the international community with the presumed purpose of bringing about a Palestinian entity that will live in peace with its neighbor Israel have had precisely the opposite effect.”

Some Israeli commentators saw this strategy as deliberate. Avnery noted, “Our government has worked for year to destroy Fatah, in order to avoid the need to negotiate an agreement that would inevitably lead to the withdrawal form the occupied territories and the settlements there.” Similarly, M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Center observed, “the fact is that Israeli (and American) right-wingers are rooting for the Palestinian extremists” since “supplanting … Fatah with Islamic fundamentalists would prevent a situation under which Israel would be forced to negotiate with moderates.’ The problem, Avnery wrote at that time, is that “now, when it seems that this aim has been achieved, they have no idea what to do about the Hamas victory.”

Since then, the Israeli strategy has been to increase the blockade on the Gaza Strip, regardless of the disastrous humanitarian consequences, and more recently to launch devastating attacks that have killed hundreds of people, as many as one-quarter of whom have been civilians. The Bush administration and leaders of both parties in Congress have defended Israeli policies on the grounds that the extremist Hamas governs the territory.

Yet no one seems willing to acknowledge the role the United States had in making it possible for Hamas to come to power in Gaza in the first place.